When does a meaningless game have meaning? When you’re a history nerd tasked with coming up with sound, logical conclusions as to why a team that underperformed for most of the season can go on a championship run.
That was what Hamilton’s 23-16 win over the Ottawa Redblacks on Saturday evening had me doing on the long drive back from Ottawa in the wee hours of the morning on Sunday.
The Ticats finish the season at 8-10, and while not exactly the record many envisioned when the season kicked off back in June, it’s a not-insignificant mark that will allow me to give fans a glimmer of hope as the team embarks on an all-road playoff route for the first time since 2011.
Since the CFL was officially founded back in 1958, just one team has won the Grey Cup with seven or fewer wins: the 1970 Montreal Alouettes. Those Als finished the season with a 7-6-1 mark and would go on to win the Grey Cup 23-10 over the Calgary Stampeders. That team was also the last East Division team to win the title from the three-seed.
Only two other sub-seven-win teams have made it to the Grey Cup since 1958: the 1981 Ottawa Rough Riders, who went 5-11, and the 1984 Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who finished 6-9-1. Both teams lost their Grey Cup games.
Eight wins, however, is a different story. Since 1997, we have seen four teams with eight wins make it to the Grey Cup, with three of them winning it all: the 2000 B.C. Lions, 2001 Calgary Stampeders, and 2016 Ottawa Redblacks. The lone eight-win team to lose in the Grey Cup was the 1997 Saskatchewan Roughriders, who fell to the Doug Flutie-led juggernaut from Toronto that year.
No team wants to win eight games out of 18 and no team wants to be forced to play all road games in the playoffs. If there is something to grasp onto while making your post-season predictions, the Ticats going 8-10 instead of 7-11 is at least something.
Here are more of my thoughts on the game.
Peaking at the right time
Following the Ticats’ demoralizing Labour Day loss to the Argos, all seemed lost. The team was 3-9, had not strung together any back-to-back wins, and was going to come out of their bye week needing to go on an epic run just to have a chance to make the playoffs.
That is exactly what they did.
The Tabbies went 5-1 in their final six games, with their lone loss coming to the team they will face in next week’s East Semi-Final, the Montreal Alouettes.
Hamilton’s run began with a thorough beatdown of the two-time defending champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers and proceeded to include a big win at home over the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the franchise’s first win at McMahon Stadium in over 18 years. It ended with a pair of victories over the Redblacks, culminating in a dangerous team heading into the playoffs.
Sports cliches say it is not how you start but how you finish and no one has finished as well as the Tiger-Cats have over the last month and a half.
Thunder and lightning
One of the most impactful changes to this team over their last six games has been a renewed commitment to the run game. The Ticats once again rushed for over 100 yards as a team and used the tailback combo of Wes Hills and Sean Thomas Erlington to great effect on Saturday.
Hills got the start and played the entire first half, rushing the ball five times for 41 yards, while also catching three passes for 26 yards. The team went to Erlington in the second half and he picked up right where his partner in crime left off, carrying the ball five times himself for 44 yards and catching two passes for 29 yards. Between the two, they averaged over 8.5 yards per rush and nearly 9.5 yards per touch.
Those numbers are the recipe for winning football in November.
Shiltz slings and Dane delivers
If the Tabbies wanted both of their quarterbacks to enter the playoffs on a strong note, mission accomplished.
Matthew Shiltz played the entire first half and then saw action late in the fourth quarter, while Dane Evans played most of the second half before Shiltz replaced him and both played strong games.
Shiltz began the game hot, completing his first six passes and driving the Ticats down the field on their first drive for a touchdown. Evans led the team on a great-looking touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter and looked as good as he has all season. The two combined for 261 yards on 19-of-27 passing with no touchdown passes and no interceptions.
The Ticats have relied on both men this season and it shouldn’t shock anyone if they do the same during the playoffs. If the hope was that both would get a confidence boost heading into November, that hope was rewarded and then some.
These types of late-season, mean-nothing-in-the-standings games can lead to unknown players breaking out and earning a shot to make the squad next year. The Ticats have seen a number of those types of performances over the years. Some led nowhere (Brian Tyms in 2016) and some that gave a future star his big break (Bralon Addison in 2018). Where Terry Godwin’s performance on Saturday will fall is yet to be determined.
Godwin, who was essentially filling in for Tim White, led the Ticats in receptions and receiving yards, and came agonizingly close to scoring his first CFL touchdown in the first quarter.
The University of Georgia product was a seventh-round pick of the Carolina Panthers in the 2019 NFL Draft but never caught on south of the border, spending time with three different teams between 2019-2022. Godwin came to Hamilton in September and Saturday was just his second game with the team. He caught one pass for 16 yards against Saskatchewan in Week 18.
It is way too soon to proclaim anything about him but his name might be one to remember for next season when training camps open.
Steven Dunbar Jr. finished the season with exactly 1,000 receiving yards and that now makes it seven consecutive 18-game seasons where the Ticats have had at least two 1,000-yard receivers.
The last time the Ticats failed to have a pair of receivers crack the 1,000-yard mark was 2014 when they had zero receivers hit four digits.
Yes, I am going to talk about Seth Small again
It is not every day that a player sets a franchise record but that is exactly what rookie kicker Seth Small did on Saturday evening. With his three made field goals against the Redblacks, the Texas A&M product set the franchise’s single-season record for field goal percentage at 90.7 percent.
Higher than Paul Osbaldiston, higher than Justin Medlock, higher than Lirim Hajrullahu. The Ticats have bounced from kicker to kicker over the last few years but it certainly seems like they have found their guy for the present and the future. He was my pick as the East Division’s top special teams player and rookie of the year.
QB sneak extravaganza
Saturday night must have been torture for the anti-quarterback sneak crowd as all three touchdowns were scored on one-yard carries by backup quarterbacks, with Caleb Evans scoring one for the Redblacks and Jamie Newman scoring a pair for the Tiger-Cats.
I am not here to reignite the debate from this past week but instead ask a question: why are so many drives coming down to the one-yard line?
In Saturday’s game, the Ticats had two receivers stopped short of the goal line and the Redblacks had one. Of the top-five rushing touchdown leaders, four are quarterbacks and three of them — Evans, Dominique Davis, and Tommy Stevens — are backups who combined for 38 rushing scores.
Why teams use backup quarterbacks on one-yard sneaks isn’t hard to understand, but why we have so many is something that might be worth investigating.
Capital city goofballs
With 11 seconds remaining and the Tabbies kneeling the game out, Ottawa’s Money Hunter decided to take an unnecessary shot at Ticats’ receiver David Ungerer. Steven Dunbar came to his teammate’s defence and then things got even uglier.
It was a stupid scene that didn’t need to happen. Tempers run high but taking a run at someone on a kneel-down play is bush league behaviour and Dunbar escalating things didn’t help matters.
It carried over as the teams walked off the field, with Tiger-Cats head coach Orlondo Steinauer hurrying his players off the field to avoid any further escalation of a tense situation.
Just a stupid incident by all involved.
The one that got away
It may have been a rough season in Ottawa but one shining light was the play of Lorenzo Mauldin, who finished the season as the league’s leader in sacks with 17.
Mauldin went to Ottawa as part of new general manager Shawn Burke’s pillaging of the Ticats and he was easily Burke’s best acquisition. After two seasons and four sacks as a relatively obscure backup in Hamilton, Mauldin exploded when given a larger role. For the record, he was my pick as the East Division’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
Given the Ticats’ season-long inability to generate a consistent pass rush, losing Mauldin may have been the biggest blow the team suffered over the winter.
City of champions
Ottawa was not home to not one, but two, Hamilton sports victories as on Sunday night Hamilton’s Forge FC, the city’s Canadian Premier League squad, defeated Atlético Ottawa 2-0 to capture their third North Star Shield as the champions of the CPL. It was Forge’s fourth straight year in the CPL Finals in the league’s four-year existence.
Forge newcomer Alessandro Hojabrpour, who scored the lone goal in last year’s final as a member of the Pacific FC side that handed Forge their only loss in the CPL playoffs to date, opened the scoring with a beautiful header in the game’s 28th minute. Longtime Forge star David Choinière extended the lead to 2-0 in the 78th minute to essentially clinch the win, and the championship, for the Hammers.
Led by Forge, Hamilton has seen a sports renaissance over the last half-decade. The Ticats have made the last two Grey Cup games and have a chance to make a third appearance this year. The Hamilton Honey Badgers, the city’s Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) team, won this year’s championship back in August and made the finals in the league’s inaugural season in 2019. The Hamilton Bulldogs won Ontario Hockey League (OHL) championship and made it all the way to the Memorial Cup Final this year.
Add in some of the larger events that have been held in the city over the last 12 months, such as the Grey Cup last December, Canada’s World Cup qualifying matchup against the United States in January, and March’s Heritage Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, and it has been as good a time to be a sports fan in Hamilton as there has ever been.
Bring on the playoffs
We are five games away from crowning the 2022 Grey Cup champions and in something that seemed impossible just six short weeks ago, the Tiger-Cats are one of the six teams remaining.
The Ticats will kickstart the playoffs against the Montreal Alouettes next Sunday in the East Semi-Final at Percival Molson Stadium.
These two teams faced each other three times in the regular season, with the home side winning all three games. The Ticats won the first meeting between the two back in July in Hamilton before the Als won the next two in Montreal in August and September.
These two teams could not be more evenly matched, with the margin of victory over the three games they played being just a single point.
Waiting on the other side for the victor will be the Toronto Argonauts, who will host the East Final for the second year in a row. The Argos won three of four matchups against the Ticats this season, all of which came by 14 or more points, including a pair of blowout wins at BMO Field. The Boatmen won two of three against the Alouettes, both by a single point.
The West Division, with three 12-plus-win teams competing for their spot in the Grey Cup, will get most of the attention but the East side of the bracket is just as compelling.
Six teams left, five games to go. The race for the most hallowed trophy in Canadian sports begins now.